Thoughts on the 1st Biennial Religion and American Culture Conference
Linford D. Fisher
Saturday, June 6, 2009. 10:37 PM. I just passed a Jesus truck. Literally. I am speeding north onRt. 31, the lonely and very straight highway that runs between Indianapolis and South Bend, Indiana. Sitting at a red light somewhere north of Kokomo, I could not help but notice a hugeMac truck and trailer with “JESUS” painted in massive, red-block letters on the one side of the trailer, parked in a truck stop but facing the highway to make its message unavoidable. As I momentarily reflect on the cultural origins, meanings, and ambiguities of the trailer, somehow this feels like a fitting ending to a two-day conference on religion and American culture (in Indiana, no less—a state in which “In God We Trust” is emblazoned onto most license plates).
The past few days, June 4 – 6, marked the 1st Biennial Religion and American Culture Conference in Indianapolis, hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI and funded in part by the Lily Endowment and Indiana University. Although it would be impossible to adequately capture all the details and nuances of the rich presentations and the discussions that transpired among the one hundred and ten registered participants seated in a large circle around a central presenter table, what follows are perhaps some of the more salient recurring themes.
WHAT IS THE FIELD?
First and foremost was the issue of what the field of the study of religion in America actually is. Jon Butler, the very first presenter, predictably (and enjoyably) played the contrarian by proposing that American religion or American religious history is not even a field at all, and that it is, at best, perhaps a shared set of questions, or merely a literature. Although Butler’s comment on the non-field-ness of the field was immediately challenged in the discussion that followed by Robert Orsi and others, it did trigger a bit of self-reflection over the ensuing sessions regarding the shape of field. Clearly most people who spoke considered it to be a viable, distinguishable field, but no satisfactory answers were offered about its precise shape other than that the field is held together by a loose interest in religion in American life, past and present, more than particular questions or methodologies.
INTERDISCIPLINARITY: PROMISES AND PERILS
Secondly, and relatedly, was the unavoidable and recurring theme of interdisciplinarity, particularly as it relates to the methodological practices of the study of American religion and culture. The conference exhibited simultaneous disciplinary diversity and homogeneity. On the one hand, the program lineup featured a pleasant mix of scholars with appointments in religious studies, sociology, and history, with the full spread of institutions represented, from schools of theology to tier one research universities. However, when asked during the first session, the clear majority of the 100 or so people present identified themselves as historians; the second largest group was those who self-identified as religionists; the third largest group was the
sociologists. Relatively absent were the self-professed anthropologists (one, two at most), political scientists, and theologians (although not by design, according to organizer Philip Goff).
The conference seemed to foster an interdisciplinary dialog, but at times forthright discussion of disciplinary boundaries and methods only seemed to reinscribe these same differences. As one participant quipped, the Thursday session on sociology probably only further alienated the historians who were present (even as another participant joked about the sociologists sleeping during the more historically-oriented sessions). And both days, surprisingly, a vigorous defense of “disciplinarity” emerged, since, as Jay Demerath argued, disciplines make their greatest contribution when they are true to themselves. Nonetheless, I for one walked away with a long list of possible books to read that I might have not otherwise considered, which I think is a good thing.
POWER: MORE THAN JUST A TIRED TROPE
Another recurring theme was the importance of ongoing attention to the dynamics of power. Paula Kane reminded the group that power was central to the cultural turn thirty years ago, especially as framed by critical theorists who used to be standard reading for graduate students; too many students now are interested in the local and ethnography and are ill-equipped to answer larger questions that might help trace the production and uses of power. In a later session, Rudy Busto once again brought power to the fore in his lamenting of the confusion between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity—by far the more acceptable and benign of the two in terms of public and academic discourse—tends to obscure the inner workings of power. Talking about race keeps power in our sights, as Amanda Porterfield reminded us in the last session.
GRAND NARRATIVES / SYNTHESIS
In a related yet different vein, the problematic of the grand narrative always seemed to be lurking in the background. Although one would think that in this group of scholars grand narratives would be a dead-end topic, in fact the opposite seemed to be true. During the discussion at the end of the session on “Competing and Complementary Approaches in American Religious History,” a somewhat spirited debate over the value of grand narratives ended with—perhaps to the sociologists’ great delight—an impromptu poll of those who had decisively abandoned a grand narrative in their own teaching of the field. Astonishingly, only two people self-identified in this way. The rest of us either admitted that we de facto teach a narrative of some sort or else still saw some value in an idealized “self-correcting” grand narrative that is continually subject to revision (largely through ongoing, specialized and localized studies). David Hall, in his comments on Saturday morning, proposed that “THE” grand narrative of American religious history (historiographically speaking) has been that of showing the relevance of religion to the development of the nation state, particularly during moments of crises (Revolutionary War, election of 1800, the start of the Civil War, etc.), á la Sidney Mead and historians of the 1950s. It is a testament to the staying power of magisterial syntheses that Daniel Walker Howe—whose 2008 Oxford book, What God Hath Wrought, won a Pulitzer—was the keynote speaker at the closing dinner on Saturday evening.
A TAYLORIAN CRISIS OF THE ACADEMY?
A final recurring theme—that also doubled, rather uneasily, as a form of comedic relief—was Mark C. Taylor’s now infamous April 26 Op-Ed in the New York Times, “End the University as We Know It,” in which he calls graduate education the “Detroit of higher learning” and wonders if graduate programs are cultivating skills for which there is no market. Although few scholars present agreed with Taylor’s dour estimation of the university and its future, his editorial prompted recurring reflection on larger concerns regarding the future of the field, the job market, disciplinary positioning, publishing, tenure, and funding sources.
The conference ended on Saturday evening with a scrumptious dinner and a series of reflections on the history of the Center (on its twentieth anniversary) from Jan Shipps, Edward Linenthal, and Conrad Cherry, followed by a keynote address from Daniel Walker Howe on “The Importance of Understanding Religion in American Society.”
Overall, the conference was delightful, and I am encouraged that it seems there will indeed be a second such conference in two years, according to the R&AC Center director, Philip Goff. As a historian of early America, however, I was surprised that the conversation gravitated so much towards topics, methodologies, and issues that related to the twentieth-century and contemporary study of religion in America rather than the earlier and—arguably—equally important eras of American history. Has early American religious history ceased to be a relevant part of this discussion? Additionally, with regard to methodology and theoretical frameworks, the vibrant presence of sociologists and the stark absence of anthropologists combined with the strong preference for the present made me wonder what the relationship is between one’s chronological focus and the methodologies one chooses to engage and appropriate (early American historians, for example, tend to draw on anthropological models, not sociological ones, although I’m still unsure why this is the case). The two days also passed with scant reference to Native Americans and questions of sexuality and religion (although the absences of both were briefly noted), and only passing reference to issues of transnational religion, international religious contexts, and globalization. And somehow, inescapably, I couldn’t help but feel like the conference slightly resembled the “Jesus” trailer I saw on Rt. 31 with its subtle but powerful assumptions about the ongoing centrality of Christianity (and even Protestantism?) in American religious life. I look forward to picking up these and other additional topics in two years, if not before. In the meantime, kudos to Philip and his staff for an excellent conference.